Courtesy Reuters

Can the Center Hold?

Understanding Israel’s Pragmatic Majority

A majority of Israelis -- around 70 percent, according to a recent poll by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, in Jerusalem -- support a two-state solution. Yet that same majority is deeply skeptical of Palestinian intentions. To understand this seeming contradiction and the psyche of the Israeli mainstream, one should read the two articles that recently appeared in these pages on the Palestinian question -- "The Problem Is Palestinian Rejectionism," by Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner, and "Israel's Bunker Mentality," by Ronald Krebs (November/December 2011) -- not as a debate but as complementary arguments. Centrist Israelis endorse Krebs' argument that the occupation is an existential threat to the Jewish state. They understand that ending it would ease the demographic challenge to Israel's Jewish majority and allow Israel to retain both its Jewish and its democratic identities. A two-state solution would also deflate the growing international movement to delegitimize not only the occupation but also the existence of Israel itself.

Yet centrist Israelis also embrace the contention made by Kuperwasser and Lipner: that the Palestinian national movement, from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority, rejects Jewish sovereignty over any part of the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Centrist Israelis see PA President Mahmoud Abbas as merely a tactical moderate who opposes terrorism only because it has harmed the Palestinian cause. They base their suspicions on speeches such as his address to the UN General Assembly last September, when Abbas condemned "63 years" of Israeli occupation -- implicating the founding of Israel in 1948, not just the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which began in 1967. For centrists, the greatest obstacle to peace is the demand of Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, for the right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees not just to a Palestinian state but also to Israel proper. These Israelis see Abbas' insistence on this right as proof that the Palestinian leader seeks to destabilize Israel from within and does not accept the right of the Jewish people to their own sovereign nation.

Such fears inhibit centrist Israelis from fully embracing the peace process, since they believe it will lead to an irredentist Palestinian state sitting on Israel's borders. Rocket attacks from the West Bank could make daily life in Israel's main population centers unbearable. If the Israeli army re-invaded to stop the attacks, Israeli officials and soldiers could find themselves charged with war crimes, just as they were after Israel attacked Gaza in 2008. And so although centrists understand how damaging to both sides the occupation has become, they view ending it before the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state as an even greater existential threat. Indeed, according to the Tel Aviv University Peace Index, a monthly public opinion survey, in January 2011, nearly 70 percent of Israelis polled moderately or strongly accepted the claim that even if a peace agreement were signed, the Palestinians would continue their struggle against Israel.

This is but one of the paradoxes with which centrist Israelis grapple. Another is the way they understand their country to be both a David and a Goliath: Goliath toward the Palestinians, but David toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel remains the strongest military power in the Middle East. But in recent years, the balance has begun to shift. Iran, through its terrorist allies -- Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza -- has established a presence in two enclaves on Israel's borders. These organizations, equipped with tens of thousands of rockets, can now target all of Israel's population centers, many of which are directly threatened for the first time in the history of the Jewish state. And with Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, Israel might soon lose its status as the sole nuclear power in the Middle East, which has been its main strategic advantage for decades. Then there is the emergence of a government in Turkey with Islamist roots and the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, which are eroding Israel's regional alliances. These factors -- not the occupation, as Krebs writes -- have created Israel's "bunker mentality."

Centrist Israelis realize that the Jewish state cannot indefinitely remain both an occupier and a member in good standing of the Western club of liberal democracies. Yet they are acutely aware that Israel is the only country threatened with destruction by some of its neighbors. And they face a Palestinian national movement whose goal, they believe, is not only the creation of its own state but also the displacement of its occupier's. Arguably, no other occupier has had to worry, as Israel does, that withdrawing will not merely diminish but destroy it.

The international community fails to acknowledge Israel's unique dilemma, reducing its options to a simplistic choice between occupation and peace, as Krebs implicitly does. This failure further undermines Israeli confidence in the peace process. The old slogan of the Israeli left, "Peace is better than the complete land of Israel," has turned out to be a mockery. Neither peace nor the complete land of Israel, centrists suspect, was ever a realistic option.

THE MAKING OF THE ISRAELI CENTER

Until the late 1980s, support for a Palestinian state could be found only on Israel's far-left fringe. Most Israeli Jews saw Palestinian sovereignty as inconceivable, especially after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) adopted the "phased plan" in 1974, which stated that it would use any territory evacuated by Israel as a base from which to destabilize and eventually destroy it.

Under these circumstances, the Israeli mainstream argued about not whether to settle in the West Bank but where. Labor Party leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres hoped to transfer most of the West Bank to Jordan while supporting Israeli settlement of underpopulated areas. Almost all Israeli Jews agreed that the territories had been acquired legitimately in a war waged to defend themselves against destruction. The convergence of security needs with Israel's historical claims to biblical Judea and Samaria, birthplace of the Jewish people, resonated broadly. And the occupation appeared relatively cost-free. For years after 1967, the territories were mostly quiet, there were no army roadblocks, and most Palestinians had jobs.

The first intifada, the uprising in the territories that began in late 1987 and lasted into the early 1990s, ended the illusion of a benign occupation. Street battles with civilians throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails scarred a generation of Israeli soldiers. Meanwhile, much of the Israeli public came to realize that the occupation meant suppressing a hostile population and was therefore untenable. For the first time, mainstream Israelis began speaking of separating from the Palestinians.

This transformation led to Israel's acceptance of the Oslo peace process. Since the right had failed to bring security through territorial expansion, Israelis reasoned, perhaps the left would succeed in bringing peace through territorial concessions. Through the 1990s, increasing numbers of Israelis, including some on the right, came to accept the inevitability of a two-state solution and its attendant compromises, such as the division of Jerusalem.

But just as the first intifada ended the fantasy of Greater Israel, the second intifada, which began in September 2000, ended the fantasy of land for peace. Krebs notes that the second intifada "left Israelis frustrated and disillusioned." In fact, the Israeli reaction more closely resembled rage and despair. The left had promised that if only Israel would offer the Palestinians statehood based on the 1967 lines, the result would be peace. And Prime Minister Ehud Barak did precisely that when he accepted the "Clinton parameters" of December 2000, which proposed a contiguous Palestinian state on almost all the territories with its capital in East Jerusalem. But the violence escalated into the worst wave of terrorism in Israel's history. For the first time since 1948, the Israeli home front became the main front. The suicide bombings seemed to vindicate those on the right who warned that the phased plan remained the strategy of the Palestinian national movement.

The second intifada shattered the Israeli left at precisely the moment when the government had adopted its policy. Newspapers published interviews with leading left-wing politicians and journalists who, having struggled for decades to convince their skeptical fellow citizens of the need to negotiate with the PLO, confessed their naiveté. The Israeli journalist Amnon Dankner compared the effect of the second intifada on the Israeli left to the impact on the world communist movement of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalin "secret speech" in 1956. The peace camp had won the ideological war against the settlers only to be discredited by its Palestinian partner. Except for a small group of true believers, most Israelis concluded that their country no longer bore the chief moral responsibility for the occupation. The Palestinian cause lost one of its greatest assets: the guilty Israeli.

HAWKS TO THE MIDDLE

Still, for centrist Israelis, the consequences of the second intifada did not negate what they had learned in the first intifada. Indeed, those two traumatic events came to define the current centrist worldview. As the center saw it, the left had correctly diagnosed the impossibility of long-term occupation and the right had seen the folly of expecting to achieve peace with a group that denies Israel's legitimacy. The result was paralysis.

The most ambitious centrist attempt to break out of that stalemate and reject permanent occupation came in 2005, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and uprooted 21 Israeli settlements. Sharon, elected half a year after the outbreak of the second intifada, was the first Israeli public figure to successfully embody the new center. As the father of the settlement enterprise, he made for an unlikely centrist hero. But he understood that Israelis wanted a leader who adopted a hard line on security and a pragmatic line on territory.

The Gaza withdrawal expressed the centrist mood. If Israel could not occupy the Palestinians or make peace with them, then it needed to extricate itself from the territories on its own terms. To the shock of the settlement movement, whose leaders had assumed that the second intifada confirmed the logic of their enterprise, a majority of Israelis supported Sharon's move. His successor, Ehud Olmert, hoped to unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank, as well. But Hamas and other militant groups launched thousands of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel immediately after the withdrawal there, forcing many committed unilateralists to acknowledge that continued West Bank occupation was preferable to unchecked missile fire.

The Kadima Party that Sharon founded to implement the withdrawal from Gaza has floundered in his absence. But the center remains a powerful force -- a fact demonstrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to assume its mantle. Although Netanyahu received scant credit for it abroad, many Israelis saw his endorsement of a two-state solution in 2009 as a breakthrough, bringing the Likud Party, however fitfully, into the mainstream consensus regarding a Palestinian state. Indeed, there is no longer any major party -- including the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), the party of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- that rejects the principle of a two-state solution. And although much of the international community dismissed Netanyahu's unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze as insufficient, centrist Israelis applauded it.

Some centrists have criticized ­Netanyahu for refusing to endorse the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations. But they fault him for tactical reasons, not strategic ones. By accepting the Clinton parameters, of which the 1967 borders are a key principle, centrist commentators have argued, Netanyahu could have exposed Palestinian intransigence. But few Israelis believe that any initiative at this point would be met by the Palestinian concessions necessary for peace. So long as Hamas remains ascendant and Palestinian leaders from all factions insist on the right of return to Israel proper, no Israeli prime minister will sign a peace agreement.

Despite its deep skepticism of Palestinian intentions, the centrist majority continues to support a two-state solution. For the sake of a peace agreement that will grant Israel legitimacy, centrist Israelis are prepared to uproot dozens of West Bank settlements and concentrate the rest in settlement blocs along the 1967 borders. But the experience of two previous failed attempts to end the occupation has convinced centrists that the settlements are not the main obstacles to an agreement. The Clinton parameters, and an even more far-reaching peace plan presented by Olmert to Abbas in 2008, would have resolved the settlement issue. True, Israel constructed settlements throughout the territories to prevent a contiguous Palestinian state. And the infrastructure that sustains these communities, such as roads and military installations, is substantial. But as the Gaza withdrawal demonstrated, settlements can be dismantled and infrastructure left behind.

If a Palestinian leader emerges who is prepared to accept the legitimacy of Jewish nationhood, his most likely peace partner would be another incarnation of Sharon: a onetime hawk who has moved toward the center. It is no coincidence that it took two hawks -- Menachem Begin and Sharon -- to initiate Israel's two substantive territorial withdrawals. Israelis feel most secure with a hawkish leader, especially when embarking on a dovish initiative; although the Labor Party first advocated a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza during the second intifada, Israelis trusted only Sharon to carry it through. The Gaza withdrawal offers a political model for a future West Bank pullout: a formerly right-wing leader galvanizing a centrist majority to implement a left-wing vision.

For that to happen, Israelis will need to see a shift in the mindset of the Palestinian national movement. Centrist Israelis have made the conceptual breakthrough required to heal the conflict, recognizing that it is a struggle between two legitimate national narratives. The Palestinians must demonstrate that they, too, are ready to grapple with the complexity of the struggle. Were Palestinian leaders to accept the right of the Jewish people to national sovereignty and agree to confine the right of return for Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state, they would open the path to statehood. As Kuperwasser and Lipner imply, the way to convince centrist Israelis to empower the Palestinians is for Palestinian leaders to accept the legitimacy of Jewish empowerment.

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}